Public Broadcasting, Democrats, and 'The Lists' Furor over Sharing Donor Lists Threatens New Funding for Public Radio and TV

Article excerpt

The idea seems straight- forward enough: Two organizations that rely on public donations to raise money agree to swap their contributor lists.

It happens all the time in the world of fund-raising. But when one entity is a public TV station and the other is the Democratic Party, such a swap can send more bad signals than a broadcast tower in a hurricane.

Revelations that several public broadcasting stations have, in fact, traded donor lists with political organizations are now reviving a bitter debate over the role of public radio and television in America.

In the GOP-led Congress, where the fight has been most intense, news of list-exchanges with Democrats may jeopardize future federal spending for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting - and has provoked "I told you so" from those who have long insisted its programming leans to the political left.

But even if it turns out that lists went to Republican groups as well, lawmakers with their fingers closest to the purse strings are resolved to ban the practice.

"Publicly financed nonprofit television and radio stations have no business being involved in any way with partisan political organizations," says Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana. Mr. Tauzin, who chairs the House Commerce Telecommunications Subcommittee, led hearings July 20 on the list- sharing flap, which now involves at least five stations in major US markets. "It undermines ... trust in public broadcasting," Mr. Johnson adds.

The controversy comes at a crucial moment for public broadcasting. For the first time in five years, it was slated to see a funding increase from Congress - a $50 million boost to help the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and more than 1,000 public stations launch into the brave new world of digital transmission. On average, 15 percent of stations' budgets comes from taxpayer-supplied federal funding, about 27 percent from state and local governments, 15 percent from the business community, and 22 percent from "viewers and listeners like you."

In the week since House Republicans discovered that WGBH, a large public TV and radio station in Boston, exchanged lists of donors with the Democratic National Committee, similar practices have come to light at stations from New York to Dallas. Perhaps drawing the most ire was news that, in 1997, the reelection campaign for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California acquired a list of people who had contributed to KQED, a public television station in San Francisco.

On radio shows and congressional phone lines, callers have expressed outrage that their hard-earned dollars for Big Bird could translate into political solicitations, Johnson says.

Carelessness or collusion?

But to some observers, the use and acquisition of donor lists do not amount to partisan collusion, but rather carelessness in managing fund-raising efforts. …